Friday, July 4, 2014


Thanks for all the feedack about the first Criminal Tendencies blog. In it, four Ottawa crime writers, Barbara Fradkin, R.J. Harlick, Mary Jane Maffini, and Linda Wiken/Erika Chase answered a question about writing, and in effect, we had a writing tips blog!

These questions were "left over" from a panel we appeared on earlier in May. We thought they were such good questions, we're writing them up for Mystery Maven Canada, one a month. Here's today's question:

Which character (protaganist, villain or victim) has more freedom?


When I grow up I want to a villain! What? Oh. You're right, of course. I'm a good guy. But the villains can do anything. They can not only kill and mame, but they can be rude, forget to walk their dogs, break all the rules and not show up for Christmas. Try any of that if you're a protagonist. And really? A victim is dead. Not so much freedom there, unless they arranged their own funeral.

As a writer, I can have fun with villains. Of course, I feel for the victim and am fond of the protag. Sometimes it's good to be bad.


A tough question. I would like to think that the protagonist has the most freedom in a crime novel, but he or she doesn’t, particularly if they are a series character. To be credible as a person, they have to operate within the boundaries of the personality that the writer has developed for them. He or she can’t suddenly do something that isn’t in keeping with this personality. For example a shy protagonist can’t become the life of the party unless a credible reason is provided for this dramatic change in behaviour.

Similarly the villain is also bound by the character that the writer has developed for them. Though I think he or she has a bit more freedom, since often the character of this person isn’t as well developed as that of the protagonist. Still you can’t have a villain who has been portrayed as anti-social suddenly becoming Mr. Nice Guy whom everyone loves.

Perhaps the individual who has the most freedom is the victim, primarily because often his or her character is the least developed. Though it seems counter intuitive to say a dead person has more freedom. Usually though during the course of the murder investigation aspects of the victim’s character are revealed to help flesh out the motivation behind his or her murder. But again like the protagonist and the villain, anything the victim did before they were killed must be within the boundaries of their character.


I would have to go with the villains. We don't have to like them, in fact it's better if we don't. Therefore, they don't have to play by the rules, they don't have to be fair, they don't have to be nice. What freedom!

In fact, the meaner and nastier they are, the more we cheer for the protagonist, who does have to play by the rules. Go get 'em!

And while the good guys use mainly their wits along with the possible backup of a weapon, the villains can concoct methods to torture and kill that make the reader shudder. Now, understand that by villain I don't necessarily mean the "bad" guy. Who doesn't love Bernie Rhodenbarr, the "bad" book thief in the burglar series by Lawrence Block. Yes, sometimes we do root for the person breaking the law. But they're not villains. They're not Hannibal Lector. Three cheers for that!

Barbara Fradkin

The villain, of course! The protagonist has a specific job to do, and everything he or she does has to drive the story forward towards the solution. Even a moment of play or fun had better serve the story. He or she also has to live up to certain standards that we as readers expect from our heroes. Flaws are okay, but if the hero does something really stupid, illegal, or even nasty, the reader may well toss the book aside. The victim has no freedom of action within the book. They may have done all kinds of wild and crazy things to stir things up and get themselves killed, but once they are dead, they are silenced.

With the villain, however, the possibilities are endless. They can be any sort of person, motivated by the vast range of human conflicts and needs. They can be desperate, frightened, vengeful, clever, bumbling… They are a blank canvas on which the writer can play. In a good whodunit, the reader meets the villain early on but doesn't know their guilt and their motive until the end. That's 300 pages of freedom for the villain. Freedom to lie, manipulate, create red herrings, or to panic, despair, self-destruct, and wreak more havoc as they try to stay one step ahead of capture. Every character in a book should be textured and human, but none more so than a good villain.

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